Penrith players have praised the resilience of South Coast residents affected by the summer's devastating bushfires after spending more than $1,000 and putting smiles on the faces of locals during a surprise visit to a Merimbula pub.
After flying to Merimbula on Wednesday ahead of Saturday night's sold-out EISS Super Saphire Trial Tribute match against Parramatta, the Panthers decided to put some more money into the fire-affected region and arrived unannounced at the Lakeview Hotel for dinner.
With 40 of the travelling party ordering steak and chips and another four eating vegetarian meals, the Panthers spent more than $1,000 at the pub as they mingled with local residents trying to overcome the impact of the bushfires that claimed 25 lives and destroyed 2400 homes in NSW.
"We went to the pub last night and just tried to put a bit more money back into the community," Penrith and NSW halfback Nathan Cleary said.
"They were pretty surprised to see us there but it is always good to see people with smiles on their faces. It doesn't take much for us to go out to the pub and have a quiet feed but it means a lot to those people so anytime we can get out and buy whatever we can it helps them."
Cleary hopes to put smiles on faces
Lock Liam Martin said the players had been able to see the magnitude of the damage from the air as they flew along the South Coast but the locals they met at the pub were in good spirits.
"We ran into a woman at the airport who showed us photos and she said it was pretty much dark for about 48 hours - it looked apocalyptic," Martin said.
"But we went to the pub for a feed last night and spoke to some of the locals and were still happy. It really does show how resilient they are.
"They would have been affected, tourism would have been affected and businesses have lost a lot over the summer so we are just trying to help them out."
Martin, Cleary, his halves partner Jarome Luai and utility Brendan Hands visited Pambula Primary School on Thursday, while James Tamou, Josh Mansour, Isaah Yeo and Dean Whare presented the NRL State of Mind program at Pambula Sporting Complex.
Cleary, Luai, Martin and Hands signed more than 300 Penrith team posters as well as dozens of autographs, while delivering messages from the NRL Respect Program for primary school students.
"It has been good to see all these kids are excited to see some Penrith players visit their school," Cleary said. "It's always awesome to be able to put some smiles on kids' faces and try to put a little bit more joy in their lives after what has been a tragic time.
"You really feel for what the kids and their families have been going through. Obviously it has been a really tough time for a lot of people around Australia, although in saying that I thought it was cool how it bought a lot of Australia together and a lot of people have been doing good things.
"Flying in you could see some burnt areas but there was also a lot of regrowth so it was awesome to see that but there are still a lot of people who have been affected and lost their houses and incomes so hopefully we can try to play a small part in helping them rebuild."
NRL players visit bushfire affected region